I came to ‘The Balloon’ blessedly ignorant of Barthelme and his status—I think my father pulled it down for me from the shelf where all his college books lived. It’s a New York City fairytale. An elaborate metaphor for longing and desire. A gentle satire of certain forms of installation art and their critics. A loving evocation of city residents and their adaptability. The balloon, though packed away at the end of the story, goes on living in my daydreams and I have often retreated into its soft curves and colors (“muted heavy grays and browns for the most part, contrasting with walnut and soft yellows”) when the world overwhelms me.
First published in The New Yorker on April 8, 1966, and still available to read there. Collected in Sixty Stories, Penguin, 1993. Also in the mini Penguin Modern Classic Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby, 2011